Anthologies are the proving ground for the untapped future. And there are hundreds, each week a new offering of bound short stories cobbled together with grit and determination appearing on the comic book racks hoping to catch your eye and sell you on one of the short tales contained within. Some of the industry’s best and brightest began long, successful careers by creating pieces for beautifully organized anthologies designed to present a broad range of work – books like the annual SPX anthology, AdHouse Book’s PROJECT series, the Top Shelf volumes and DC Comics’ BIZARRO COMICS to name a few. Genres and themes from Western to Superhero to Horror to Romance; Subsets of a diverse comics community with individual appeals and individual tastes. No matter what you dig there’s an anthology of sequential short stories out there for you.
Take a look behind the curtain. Behind every good anthology is a patient, determined, organized editor with a singular vision to create a well-balanced, targeted book that will be accepted by a wide range of readers and perhaps bring a brand new talent to the attention of a comics-hungry world.
Bound and set to understand what makes an anthology successful and the truth behind the mantra that “anthologies don’t sell’, I posed a series of questions to the editors of three anthologies on the radar of the comics market: Ivan Brandon, writer of Image Comics’ NYC MECH and editor of the related 24SEVEN anthology; Cheese Hasselberger, organizer of the NYC HO12 Jams and editor of underground anthology HOUSE OF TWELVE; and Jason Rodriguez, editor of the critically acclaimed ELK’S RUN and the upcoming POSTCARDS anthology.
Join us, won’t you?
KLEID: In Nick Hornsby’s HIGH FIDELITY, the character of Rob Fleming describes how the art of making the perfect mix tape: You start with something that gets people’s attention but you don’t want to show your hand so you take it down a notch. You really have to know what you’re doing. I tend to feel the same way about anthologies – what say you? Is there an art to orchestrating the perfect comics anthology?
BRANDON: Sure, but much like in a mixtape it’s more of a gut thing than a tangible science. In 24seven there was a lot of thought given to alternating the more “mainstream” american comics styles with the more surrealist or cartoony, etc… I wanted every story you turned to to be a huge departure from the one you’d just read.
HASSELBERGER: An art? That’s a stretch, but there are systems and philosophies to it. I’ve seen straight up hodgepodges and meticulously laid out affairs, both have their place. A mix tape is a pretty good analogy, but if you were forced to use a certain songs. For me I try and divide the submissions into three catagories: I Love it, I Like it and Not So Much then spread them out evenly. For Ho12#3 it was pretty easy, we had great anchor contributions from David Paleo and Bald Eagles that really opened and ended the book well, there were two-three other stories I really liked and one that needed to be in the centerfold. After them I placed my tier 2′s and wedged in the tier 3′s as filler. I think it worked out pretty well.
RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely, but how you structure your stories varies on the project. When I was editing Western Tales of Terror (a forty-page bimonthly) a lot of thought went into balancing the book. The feature story was always the last story. It had a cliffhanger, it made people want to pick up the next book, and it was the longest story so it leaves people thinking they had a full meal. The first story was almost always the prettiest (and often the all-around strongest) for the flip-throughs. The headliner’s story was almost always right before the feature story in the hopes that people read through three-quarters of the book before getting to the most recognizable name. The rest of the book was balanced in such a way so that the stronger stories would really stand out and the weaker stories would be positioned so that they just seem weak in comparison to the stronger ones. With POSTCARDS it’s completely different. 160-pages, 16-stories – I run the risk of a reader getting the gimmick and getting tired of it. So I find myself trying to position the stories so that there’s a narrative running through the book. The first and last stories are sort of “special projects” and don’t follow the format of the other 14 stories. They do a great job of launching the anthology and bringing it all together, respectively. The middle stories take us through the ups-and-downs of different types of relationships, some have similar themes, some have similar starting points, and some even feature different takes on the same people. As the stories come in and you write your introductions you begin to see a narrative fall out of it. 16 stories, created independently of each other, and you have something that feels like a complete novel. It’s quite nice.
KLEID: There’s long been a running mantra in the comics marketplace that Anthologies Do Not Sell. I believe there’s a diverse array of all different kinds of anthologies – from Digital Webbing to the Top Shelf bound books to singles-vision anthologies like SOLO and AMERICAN SPLENDOR and AdHouse Book’s recent PROJECT, uh, projects. True or False: Anthologies Do Not Sell. And if false what have you done with your own projects to prove that there’s a solid market for the comics anthology?
BRANDON: I’m not much for black and white statements so what I’ll say is that it’s sometimes true. In my experience I think some of the more familiar creator names drew readers to pick up the book in larger quantities than some others. I think it’s less likely right now to do well with shorter anthologies… I can’t definitively say why that is but if I had to guess I’d say the market’s starting to split into two different buying camps…the single issue wednesday shoppers VS the permanent edition “wait for the trade” camps. I think it’s likely that the former gravitates to a specific type of material and the more experimental work wouldn’t draw their eye. The latter’s not looking at ANY shorter works, regardless of content or quality. So a book like SOLO, for example… gets lost in the shuffle as it doesn’t really properly serve either of those audiences. (Or alternately there’s a plausible case to be made that Batman readers don’t want to read Brendan McCarthy and Brendan McCarthy readers don’t want to read Batman, but that’s another interview altogether.)
HASSELBERGER: True, to a point. If you have a marketing apparatus behind you, you can make a successful go at it. Having a huge corporation that has no problem dropping several grand on advertising is a pretty big bonus. For us humans, it helps to redefine your goals, what do you want out of the book? Do you want huge commercial success? Indie cred? Make something YOU like or just involve yourself in the scene. I’ve had to scale back my expectations over the years, because after conventions, hotels, printing, advertising, signage, website upkeep, plane tickets, van rental, shipping and my own time, I break even at best. I’ll tell ya though, the recent small web based POD places like (PLUG) www.comixpress.com do make it a lot more reasonable. I don’t have to tie myself to the minimums of the full-scale printers. They have decent rates and quality. It’s worth the slightly higher prices to not have to have a dozen boxes in my apartment all the time, or have to shell out $1600-4500 at once, I can do it $300 at a time.
RODRIGUEZ: False. A lot of themeless, monthly anthologies tank, sure. You have one month to really promote it (while it’s in previews) and all you can say is, “It’s got short stories.” At least SOLO had the advantage of featuring the greatest creators in comics but even that wasn’t enough to keep it going. Most of the anthologies we’re seeing succeed now are ones with a long shelf-life, high production values, great stories, gorgeous artwork, and marquee creators. With POSTCARDS, I have all of the elements listed above and I think I have a great hook to boot (all of the stories are based on used, antique postcards I’ve collected over the years). I’ve also been marketing it for the past few months and I’m only picking it up as we go along, trying new things. We have some fun little promotions planned which will hopefully turn eyes towards us. The book comes out in July 2007 so we’re talking a years worth of marketing here. That’s another thing these thick anthologies allow you to do. You can space out their release and take a year to talk-up a single book.
KLEID: A few years back the SPX (Small Press Expo) Anthology, one of the premier showcases for new cartoonists, decided to abandon their “submit what you like” mentality and adopted yearly themes – Biography, Travel and War. Last year they went back to their original No Theme format and since then opinions have flown back and forth as to which was the better format. Do you feel a unifying theme makes an anthology more attractive? Indy-alt faves KRAMERS ERGOT and FLIGHT seem to do just fine without a theme.
BRANDON: Yeah, I don’t know that I’d say either way is better. For my part I chose robots as a fun springboard and it ended up inspiring some pretty fantastic work, but had I opted for “BAILING HAY”, I don’t know how well off I’d have ended up.
HASSELBERGER: My books are themed, but that’s me. I think it helps the reader get their head into one place. Now with three books done and four on the way, it’d be kinda hard to stop now. That said, I prefer the SPX book without restriction, it fits the nature of the show.
RODRIGUEZ: It’s a tough call. With the SPX anthology, forcing a theme onto the book seemed to have chased away a lot of the big indie and small-press creators. If you go to someone who has, you know, a ton of paying work to take care of and ask if they have a story they want to contribute to a themeless anthology they could just pull one from the vault that they’ve never finished (or finished but never published) and pass it along. You come to them and say, “We need a war story,” and chances are there’ll be a much greater commitment needed from them. For POSTCARDS, people jumped on board because of the hook. I didn’t really have to convince or beg people, I just told them what it was about and most of them wanted in. So, a good hook can certainly help you from an editor’s point-of-view. “I’ll send you a used postcard and you tell a story inspired by it,” is a lot sexier than, “You tell a story.’ I just think an anthology should be easy to pitch. Not to say that it HAS to be easy to pitch but, if it is, I think it makes your life a lot easier. People get POSTCARDS after a two-sentence pitch, regardless of the talent involved. Folks like Harvey Pekar, Phil Hester, and Michael Gaydos are gravy at that point (delicious gravy, but gravy none-the-less).
KLEID: Tell tales out of school: What’s been the worst hand down experience you’ve had putting an anthology together? What problems should potential anthologeditors be aware of going into the process?
BRANDON: The hardest thing for me is the simple grunt work… trying to sort of guide the workflow of dozens of creators towards a single specific deadline can add a lot of stress and place you in the uncomfortable position of a makeshift employer… nobody likes their boss, so it’s hard to reconcile becoming one. But there’s nothing that outweighs the enormous satisfaction I get when I see a book that looks like 24seven does.
HASSELBERGER: I once sized an entire book wrong and didn’t realize it until the night before it went out. Set your deadline 4 months before you actually want it and tell all your contributors that you’ll go out of business and be put out onto the street if you don’t their submissions on time, so when they miss the deadline, you can stay relatively cool and treat them like the dogs they are! Um, I mean, trust your team!
RODRIGUEZ: The worst experience I’ve had so far was when I had to cut someone from a book after he turned in his pages. This was for WToT, they came in on the deadline and they just looked rushed, not at all what we were expecting. But they were fixable, and we sent notes, and never heard back. So we had to replace him. The email I got back – I still feel bad about it. And that’s what you should be aware of. That people are going to disappoint you and you are going to disappoint people. I had to cut three people from POSTCARDS who were attached to the project from day one. One of them was even a very good friend of mine and another was someone whom I’ve worked with in the past and whose work I adore. I also lost a writer (and that loss is what led to some of the shake-ups that caused me to cut people). You need to plan for this kind of stuff, though. Writers will bring their own artists on board and people will leave your book – the more stories you have the more likely that’ll happen. You plan ahead; the moment things started to look sketchy with the writer in question I started feeling around for a replacement. The day he left the book I filled his slot. And that’s how Antony Johnston and Noel Tuazon got a story in the book. I couldn’t ask for a better “fill-in” team.
KLEID: I’m an anthology junkie. I line my bookshelves with them and pray to the great gods McSweeney once per week, offering short autobio stories in sacrifice. Tell me more about the anthology you produce, where I can find it and why I should buy it. Include order codes if you have them!
BRANDON: The book in question is 24SEVEN and it features ROBOTS and the work of Adam Hughes , Eduardo RIsso, Alex Maleev, Becky Cloonan, Matt Fraction, Frazer Irving, Farel Dalrymple, Phil Hester, Mike Huddleston, Jim Mahfood, Tony Moore, Rick Remender, John Ney Rieber, Danijel Zezelj and a zillion more.ORDER CODE MAY061717
HASSELBERGER: House of Twelve is a rarely published anthology edited by myself, Cheese Hasselberger. Each issue has a running topic, the first is ‘re-imagining religion’, #2 is ‘Sci-Fi’, and #3 is ‘FILTH, the most offensive book made in America today’. Issue four has recently begun recruiting artists, it very nearly filled up in a day.
Issues 1, 2 & 3 are available from Last Gasp! & Coldcut and #3 from Diamond. Or better yet, get them straight from me via www.houseoftwelve.com, email me for special dealer pricing.
RODRIGUEZ: My newest project is entitled POSTCARDS. It’s a 160-page anthology with stories inspired by antique postcards I’ve collected over the years. The book features tales of quarantines, sickly mothers, secret admires, and world wars told by some of comics greatest creators, including Harvey Pekar, Phil Hester, Tom Beland, Stuart Moore, Michael Gaydos, Rick Spears, Rob G, Antony Johnston, Josh Fialkov, Noel Tuazon, Ande Parks, Robert Tinnell, Danielle Corsetto, A. David Lewis, and, of course, Blogarama’s distinguished guest host, Neil Kleid. It is coming July 2007, no order code yet, obviously, and no publisher announcement yet, either. All in due time. For now we have a MySpace page where you can see artwork and production blogish stuff and our full website should be up in November at http://www.allyouleave.com.